November 2, 2020

October Reading Recap

I continue to be grateful for books to distract myself with:

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam: On a warm summer day, Amanda, Clay, and their two young teens escape Manhattan for a vacation at an Airbnb way out on Long Island. The beautiful house they've rented is too remote for cell phone service, but it has internet, satellite TV, and most importantly, a swimming pool. The first days of vacation are perfect, but on the second night, after the kids are in bed, Amanda and Clay are startled by a knock at the door. It's the owners of the house, or at least people claiming to be the owners, and they say the city has suddenly gone dark in a power outage. Electricity is still flowing at the house, but the internet and TV are out, so there's no way to confirm their story or learn what's happening. After an uneasy series of conversations, the owners go to sleep in an empty bedroom, and they all wait for the situation to become clearer. The next day, with no clarity in sight, everyone tries to cope with anxious speculations and the awkwardness of each other's presence. But it's such a beautiful house, and such a beautiful day for enjoying the pool, that it's hard to really believe anything is wrong.

This book is so good, and so tense. Alam's sentences are perfect, whether he's relaying a character's vaguely shameful thought, describing the detritus on a car floor, or providing an ominous, omniscient peek at what's unfolding in the world beyond the vacation rental. The nuances of all the character interactions make this as much a story about the horror of being stuck in an uncomfortable situation with strangers as it is about the horror of possibly impending doom. I recommend this book highly, but with the warning that it is profoundly unsettling. I read the last third in a shaky adrenaline rush that had me jumping out of my skin when my doorbell rang. It's that effective a story.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison: Layla's goals in life are to become a scientist and to protect her little brother from their unstable mother and horrific home environment. She works hard to excel in junior high, to ignore the classmates who bully her, and to prevent anyone from discovering how she and Andy live. Layla dreams of escape, but it's hard to imagine a good way out when you live in an apartment you have to exit through a window because the front door no longer opens.

The experiences and surroundings that Layla describes are deeply upsetting, but Elison keeps the story from descending into misery by portraying Layla as so competent and confident that the reader remains hopeful. Layla's great narrative voice pulled me in immediately, and the escalating series of events kept me engrossed. There's no easy happy ending for Layla, but she does get free, as Elison did of the childhood circumstances she drew on for this riveting novel. I'm so impressed, and relieved for them both.

STRANGER FACES by Namwali Serpell: In this collection of essays, Serpell ponders faces in a variety of cultural contexts. Each of the five essays is tied to a specific piece of history or media and combines footnoted research with more abstract theorizing. One essay starts by focusing on the life and portrayals of Joseph Merrick ("the Elephant Man"), moves into the ways faces are rendered in different styles of art, and ends up at Cleopatra and Michael Jackson. Another analyzes scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to show how the film plays with faces and reflections. Throughout the collection, Serpell discusses how ideas of beauty, race, and gender influence our reactions to faces, both in life and in art.

I wouldn't have picked up a collection like this if not for my enthusiasm for the author, and it was an interesting reading experience not entirely to my taste. I generally enjoyed whenever the essays provided historical information and more concrete cultural criticism, but my attention wandered at the parts I'd call philosophical musings. My favorite essay was the last one, which explores emoji usage and how we communicate with those little digital faces. I'd recommend this book to readers inclined toward this sort of essay, and I'll take the opportunity to once again recommend Serpell's incredible novel, THE OLD DRIFT.

→ In RED PILL by Hari Kunzru, a writer travels to Berlin for a fellowship, eager for the opportunity to focus on his writing, something that's been difficult at home in New York since his daughter was born. He finds the expected working conditions at the center unfavorable for focusing, but when he holes up in his room to write, his concentration isn't any better. Mostly he wastes time online, takes long walks in the depressing winter landscape, and binge-watches a police procedural called Blue Lives. He's increasingly bothered by odd references he notices in the show's dialogue, and by concerns that everything he does at the center is being watched. Eventually (after a disconnected section relating a different character's experiences in East Berlin) the writer meets the creator of Blue Lives at a party. They spend a disturbing evening together, and his paranoia grows.

I found this novel oddly paced and structured. While the narrator's obsession with Blue Lives and its creator becomes central to the story, most of the first half is about other matters, and I'm not clear why all of it is in there. Kunzru writes well, which kept me interested enough in the slow, cerebral narrative, but I was discouraged by feeling that I didn't really get what he was doing. The book ends with an emotionally wrenching section that in some ways clarified the point of everything else, but in other ways left me more frustrated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Leah Rachel von Essen investigates How the USPS Chooses Its Literary Stamps: "The Literary Arts series has featured an author on a stamp every year since 1979. They try to choose a wide range of literary figures, both in terms of diversity of gender, race, and in subject matter. The first stamp in the series featured John Steinbeck. Artists featured have included Richard Wright, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Katherine Anne Porter. The stamps feature a portrait of the author with a background inspired by the themes of one or all of their works."

October 7, 2020

September Reading Recap

I read three excellent books last month in three quite different genres:

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi: In Gifty's neuroscience research as a grad student at Stanford, she studies the brains of mice to learn about the mechanisms behind addiction and depression. Her brother died of a heroin overdose, and her mother has struggled with depression ever since, but Gifty is reluctant to connect her research focus to her family's problems. She studies neuroscience because it's hard, she and her mother don't discuss her brother, and she doesn't tell her labmates anything about her life, even when her severely depressed mother comes from Alabama to stay with her and won't get out of bed. Gifty used to communicate most freely in the letters to God that she wrote in her journal, but these days she's torn over how to balance faith and science. In the course of the novel, Gifty recalls her childhood, explores her views of religion, and explains her work, until she's answered the research question that is her own life.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is an intimate story of one woman and one small family, so it's quite unlike Gyasi's epic debut, HOMEGOING, but both books unfold with confident leaps through time and skillfully crafted scenes. As Gifty reveals different aspects of her past and present, there aren't any sudden revelations or shocking twists, yet the story builds to a nuanced, satisfying depiction of her life, or at least as much as she's willing to share. This is a beautiful, wrenching story of complicated family ties, mental illness, loss, and belief. I can't wait to see what new direction Gyasi will go next.

TWELVE: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALE by Andrea Blythe is a small but powerful book of prose poetry. These compact stories imagine the post-fairy tale lives of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, giving each sister identity and agency. I wouldn't have picked up this book if Andrea weren't a friend, but I happily read it twice through.

Each sister's tale is vivid with imagery and sensation, and I was delighted by the unexpected fates they reveal. The first sister rages against the man she's forced to marry, but her desire to be free of him is complicated by lust: "They played a game of poisoning, death always at the edges of every smile, every kiss and touch and caress." The fifth sister is pregnant, but she doesn't know if she's carrying a baby, a magical creature, or the product of ingested apple seeds. The eighth and ninth sisters, twins, become bandits of legend: "No one ever said two girls could carve open the world like an oyster, taking all its pearls and swallowing the meat." The tenth sister finds love in the palace kitchen: "At night, they untangled the laces of their skirts, uncaged themselves of corsets, peeling each other open like rare fruit." There's bodily pleasure throughout this collection, along with a yearning for knowledge and escape, and the result is an empowering, inventive storybook.

ARTIFICIAL CONDITION by Martha Wells is the second installment of the Murderbot Diaries, and I liked it even more than the first, but I recommend reading these novellas in order for the full story of the highly competent, very anxious Security Unit. In this episode, Murderbot is on its own for the first time, trying to escape notice by passing as an augmented human while investigating the mystery of its forgotten past. Murderbot is fortunate to meet up with a clever research transport ship who may be an asshole but has some good ideas, and also shares Murderbot's enthusiasm for watching downloaded media serials.

Murderbot continues to be an excellent protagonist and entertaining narrator, and I enjoyed seeing how the character developed through the challenges faced in this book. The growing friendship between Murderbot and Asshole Research Transport has a great dynamic, and I hope there will be more of ART in the future. If you've been curious about the Murderbot series but wary of the hype, I urge you to check it out.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Paris Review, Adrienne Raphel returns to Beverly Cleary's Ramona books and finds delight and weirdness: "Seeing images of Portland in tear gas, under an orange sky, I've felt enraged, terrified, and helpless. I've wanted to escape to Ramona’s Portland, with invisible lizards and makeshift sheep costumes and beloved red rubber boots." (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 25, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2020

One thing getting me through this year is good books, and the anticipation of more good books. I've been looking forward to reading these fall releases — and the wait is over for some of them, since the September books are already out.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi (September 1): Gyasi's debut, HOMEGOING, was an amazing epic covering centuries and generations of characters. Her new book is the much more intimate story of a family affected by addiction, mental illness, and loss, narrated by a scientist unsure how to square her work with her religious upbringing.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison (September 1): Back when I was enthusiastic about reading post-apocalyptic stories, I sank into Elison's THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE and the rest of the Road to Nowhere trilogy. FIND LAYLA is a refreshingly different genre of story, though still one with a character going through tough times, about a teen coping with family instability and online bullying.

TWELVE: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALE by Andrea Blythe (September 7): Andrea is a friend, but I don't think I'm being too biased in my enthusiasm for her writing. TWELVE is a small book of prose poems, beautifully produced by Interstellar Flight Press, that imagines what happens to The Twelve Dancing Princesses after the end of their fairy tale.

THE 99% INVISIBLE CITY: A FIELD GUIDE TO THE HIDDEN WORLD OF EVERYDAY DESIGN by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (October 6): One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible, which explores the design of objects, the built environment, and all kinds of topics we probably never even thought about. The book investigates the details of how cities work, and while I'm not sure if I'll read it straight through or dip in at random, I am excited to receive my copy.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October 6): The interpersonal dynamics in Alam's THAT KIND OF MOTHER were so good that I'm not going to put off reading his new book, even though it involves some sort of potentially civilization-shattering disaster. Two families who don't know each other are forced together in a remote house while something horrible seems to be happening in New York City, and nobody is sure who or what to trust.

BLACK SUN by Rebecca Roanhorse (October 13): Roanhorse's work has received a lot of attention and awards, and I was intrigued by her new series after hearing her speak at WisCon's online convention. The Between Earth and Sky trilogy takes place in a fantasy world based on civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, and it promises celestial prophecies, power struggles, and great characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At BBC Culture, Hephzibah Anderson pages through the first drafts of classic novels: "The manuscripts of literary works-in-progress fascinate on many levels, from the flush-faced thrill of spying on something intensely private and the visceral delight of knowing that a legendary author's hand rested on the paper before you, to the light that such early drafts shed on authorial methodology and intent. Sometimes, the very essence of what a writer is trying to express seems to hover tantalisingly in the gap between a word deleted and another added in its place."

→ David Lerner Schwartz writes for Literary Hub about Percival Everett's new novel, TELEPHONE, published in three slightly different versions: "Books of course contain multitudes in that they contain characters who, like us, are contradictory, complex, and human in worlds so close to (or far from) our own. But here, depending on the version you've received, you're getting a slightly different Zach, a slightly different story. In one version he's perhaps more reticent, another more daydreaming, another more at odds, but these differences seem overall negligible. Across the versions, they average out to the same man, the same-ish experience. But to be wise to Telephone's instantiations is to believe that perhaps somewhere else things might work out differently."

September 9, 2020

August Reading Recap

While the real world keeps getting more unreal, I'm continuing to appreciate escaping into fictional worlds and people:

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Noemí is a socialite in 1950 Mexico City who enjoys parties, dresses, and flirting but would still like her father to take her more seriously and let her pursue a degree in anthropology. She was once quite close with her cousin Catalina, but they've been out of touch since Catalina married and moved to her new husband's family home in a remote town. When a bizarre letter arrives from Catalina, full of paranoid ranting about poison and ghosts in her new home, Noemí's father sends her to pay a visit and check on Catalina's health. At High Place, Noemí finds her cousin in a worrying mental and physical state in a decaying mansion where the family imposes strict rules. The ancient patriarch is obsessed with eugenics, Catalina's husband is alternately hostile and lecherous, and Noemí starts having nightmares about the men that grow more disturbing every night. Her instinct is to run away, taking Catalina with her, but the more time she spends with the family, the more doubts she has about what's happening, and the harder she finds it to leave the house.

This book is so impressively creepy. Even Catalina's letter in the first chapter made my skin crawl, and since I don't read a lot of horror, I wasn't sure if I could tolerate the rest of the book. The carefully managed tension and fantastic characters kept me reading to the end, even as the story became more gruesome and distressing. The dank, rotting atmosphere of the house rises off the page, and the text has seared into my mind several vivid images of repulsive things happening to bodies. This is all a testament to Moreno-Garcia's writing skills, as well as a fair warning to readers. MEXICAN GOTHIC is an excellent book that's very hard to put down, and it's also so effective that it's hard to read!

LOVING DAY by Mat Johnson: Warren is a not-too-successful comics artist and a Black man often mistaken for white, and he's pretty self-conscious about all of that. After the death of his father, Warren returns to Philadelphia to deal with the burned-out mansion his father was restoring, which is haunted by either ghosts or drug addicts. Warren intends to burn down the house completely, collect the insurance payout, and leave the country again, but before he can carry out that plan, he meets the seventeen-year-old daughter he didn't know about. Tal was raised white and Jewish, and she isn't too happy about discovering her Black roots, or about much of anything. She moves into the mansion with Warren, and he enrolls her in a new school for mixed-race students. Warren has no interest in embracing his own biracial identity, but he is interested in a woman who works at the school, so he gets a job there teaching art and postpones his arson scheme until Tal finishes school.

I had a lot of fun reading this book. Warren, Tal, and all the people they meet are great characters, sometimes absurd, largely human in their many flaws. Johnson's sentences are well-observed and often slyly humorous: "Its expansive lawn is utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle." Some made me laugh out loud: "They have two beautiful kids, and one okay-looking one." The exploration of race and identity is honest, even when it approaches satire. The story careens along through wild interactions, strange turns, and touching moments of connection. Throughout, LOVING DAY is a delight.

THE RELENTLESS MOON by Mary Robinette Kowal is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series and has a different protagonist, a character who appears in the earlier books. The story takes place during events of the second installment but could be read without knowledge of the first, since the relevant pieces of backstory are sufficiently explained.

In the years since a meteor strike destroyed the eastern US and permanently altered the climate, the international effort to relocate humanity into space has made great progress, but anger has grown among those who know they may be left behind. Nicole, one of the original class of astronauts, splits her time between piloting shuttles on the Moon and throwing parties for her politician husband on Earth. While she misses her husband when they're apart, she usually appreciates the calmer life of the lunar colony. But when Nicole learns that several recent space program misfortunes may be linked to sabotage, she realizes that this trip to the Moon isn't going to be anything like ordinary.

The story starts off with a couple of bangs, a window shattering during a riot and a rocket exploding on launch in the first dozen pages, and the catastrophes rarely let up. Things go wrong constantly in this novel, so it's an exciting (dare I say relentless?) read, and often upsetting, with characters who suffer in all sorts of ways. There's even a disease outbreak and a quarantine! The cleverly constructed plot revolves around a mystery, with suspects and clues that kept me guessing. I find the writing in this series clunkier than in Kowal's earlier Glamourist Histories, maybe because of the different narrative style or maybe because my tastes have evolved. While I was sometimes frustrated by narrator quirks and repetition, I remained caught up in this action-packed story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Angelica Baker writes for Literary Hub about the thoughts behind her pandemic project of reading every unread book on her shelves: "...the place reading occupies in my life is really that of a vice. I apply myself to it like an alcoholic on a drinking binge that never ends; I do it compulsively, for days and hours I have pledged (to myself and others) to spend doing other things. It is no accident that I've arranged my adult life such that I can spend a full day reading and then lean on the pretentions of 'research' or 'craft,' as if I only dip into someone else's fiction as part of the diligent work of writing my own."

August 28, 2020

Writing Again

It looks like it's my habit now to post a writing update every two months, which in These Times continues to feel like so much longer. Part of the reason for this pattern is that it's about as often as I have anything to say, because my writing focus has been very on-again, off-again.

At the time of my last report, I was working on a story I was really enjoying, and approaching what wanted to be the end, but with no conclusion in mind. I never did come up with an ending, and after leaving it unfinished, I had many uncreative weeks.

I should reread that last story soon and see if the time away gives me a new insight, but happily, I'm preoccupied with something else now. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a whole story in three days, all the way to an end this time. I'm revising it now, and I think it's pretty good!

Non-writing life is as okay as it can be, considering. California is on fire, and that's a terribleness on top of the existing terribleness of the pandemic, but my personal impact is nothing compared to people who have lost their homes or lives. I live in the middle of an urban area not in direct fire risk. The air quality has been awful throughout the Bay Area for the past week and a half, so I haven't been able to get outside as much as I'm accustomed to, but the smoke comes and goes as the wind shifts, and I got to take several walks this week. Firefighting crews are gradually containing the many wildfires of what I've only just learned is amazingly named the "August Lightning Siege," so that's good news all around.

I'm off to write more on my story now, and when I have something new to share, I'll write again!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders addresses the question of what to write about when the world is broken: "The past few years, I've had the same conversation a bunch of times, with other authors who couldn't write what they were 'supposed' to be writing. Maybe they were trying to finish a serious, intense military fantasy book, but they kept 'cheating' and writing a fluffy rom-com about magical chipmunk princesses in love. Or maybe they were trying to write something light and escapist, to get their mind off current events, but all that came out was a dark reflection of our real-life nightmares." Anders is posting a whole series of essays on this topic at Tor.com, and I'm eager to read them all!

→ At The New York Times, Amitava Kumar shares writing advice inscribed by authors in their books: "When I started asking writers I knew or met at literary festivals to sign their books with a piece of valuable advice, I began to see it not as self-help but, instead, as a glimpse into that particular writer's mind."

August 6, 2020

July Reading Recap

There was a lot of variety in last month's reading, though I did happen to read two very different stories involving ghosts!

EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME by Natalia Sylvester: On Isabel and Martin's wedding day, which coincides with the Day of the Dead, Martin's father makes a uninvited ghostly appearance. Martin has no interest in speaking to his father, who abandoned the family long ago, but Isabel is fascinated by her father-in-law, who her new husband refuses to speak of. The next year, Omar appears again to Isabel, and the connection that grows between them is strengthened and complicated by the arrival of another unexpected family member. As Isabel, Martin, and the rest of their living family navigate challenges and triumphs, alternate chapters provide an account of Omar's past, starting with an eventful border crossing from Mexico to Texas.

In this emotional family story, Sylvester keeps the plot developments coming, and I was frequently in suspense and guessing at what would happen next. I felt deeply for the characters, even when I was frustrated over the many secrets they kept from each other. Some of the pacing felt off to me, and I was surprised that certain parts of the story weren't explained or shown, but overall, I found this novel affecting and worthwhile.

HIMSELF by Jess Kidd: Mahony was left on the steps of a Dublin orphanage as a baby in 1950. Twenty-six years later, he receives a letter revealing the name of his mother and his birthplace, and he travels to that small coastal town to learn about his past. In Mulderrig, Mahoney makes a few allies, including an elderly actress who shares Mahoney's suspicion that his mother's mysterious disappearance was actually a murder. Once the duo begins investigating, the town turns against them, and it becomes clear that more than a few villagers have something to hide. Also, Mahoney can see ghosts, and he's soon surrounded by dead who are eager to talk, but it turns out they aren't as much help as you'd think in solving a murder.

This is an entertaining novel full of quirky characters, exciting plot turns, and delightful prose. At some points the story is absurdly humorous or suddenly supernatural, at others the characters are subject to dark violence or peril, and Kidd manages all of these tones well. I enjoyed watching the relationships developing between Mahoney and his friends, and I was always rooting for them to outsmart their enemies and get to the bottom of the mystery. The narrative is a bit too coy about withholding information, including seeming to leave a question unresolved at the end, so it's somewhat less successful as a mystery than it is as the compelling escapades of a fun team.

THE LIGHTNESS by Emily Temple: Olivia enrolls in a summer meditation program for teen girls at a mountain retreat that's nicknamed the Levitation Center for the rumored abilities of some practitioners. She's searching for clues about her father, who disappeared after a visit to the Center, but what she finds instead is a growing fascination with three girls who hold themselves apart from the rest of the program. When the trio's charismatic, mysterious leader brings Olivia into their fold, her summer transforms into one of intense friendships and rivalries, dangerous games, and a quest to learn the secrets of levitation.

This atmospheric novel captures the obsessive extremes of adolescent friendship and longing. Throughout the story, short sections present Buddhist teachings and philosophical musings that comment on the events. Temple crafts great sentences, full of well-chosen details and subtle humor: "You could see the wealth in her cheeks, clear as anything. Day. Crystal. Vodka. My own parents managed, but things were harder for all of us after the separation. Corners and coupons were cut." Olivia narrates from an adult perspective, dropping foreboding hints about how the summer ends, but I found the eventual reveals underwhelming. Like seeking levitation perhaps, the story is more about the process than achieving the goal, and it succeeds in making the steps along the way compelling and disturbing.

→ In BIG FRIENDSHIP: HOW WE KEEP EACH OTHER CLOSE, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman use the story of their own friendship to explore the value and challenges of adult friend relationships. Aminatou and Ann met in their mid-20s when they were both at transitional points in their lives. Their quick, easy connection grew into a mature bond as they worked through the strains of career stress, distance, chronic illness, and interracial friendship. As the podcast they started became a successful joint business, they found their personal attachment faltering, and eventually sought counseling together so they could commit to their Big Friendship for the long haul.

I've listened to the Call Your Girlfriend podcast for years and enjoy the hosts' feminist perspective on politics and culture as well as the way they celebrate their friendship, so I was intrigued that the book opens by revealing the precarious period of their relationship. This framing promises a more honest look at their friendship than the podcast has ever provided, and while the authors do discuss many issues frankly, the book is far from a sensational tell-all. In general, the more personal sections interested me less than the parts where Sow and Friedman place their friendship within a larger context, incorporating the stories of others and presenting research from experts who study interpersonal relationships. I would have liked even more of that broader approach, but I think there's enough to make this book a worthwhile read even to those not previously invested in the authors' friendship.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Lit, Kate Reed Petty suggests possible ways to radically rethink online book events: "Innovation is part of the push for universal access—the more we can make online experiences exciting and engaging, the more we can cement an enduring tradition of truly accessible events. And we can also open the door to people who might never walk into a bookstore."

→ Adriana Balsamo describes the changed work habits of The New York Times Book Review in quarantine: "Before the coronavirus, the Book Review would receive hundreds of books and galleys (a printer's uncorrected proof) in the mail every week. Books were entered into a database and divided between bins and shelves for preview editors, who look over galleys more thoroughly and decide if they warrant a review or some other form of coverage.... Whether the galley was sent from one of the big five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) or a small press, every book passed through the hands of at least one editor for consideration."

July 10, 2020

June Reading Recap

In June, I read three excellent novels:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett: Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in Mallard, a town of Black citizens who prize light skin like that of the sisters. In 1954, the teenage twins ran away together to New Orleans, and then their lives split apart. When Desiree returns to Mallard fourteen years later with a dark daughter, the townsfolk are scandalized. For Desiree, what's more shocking is that when she last saw Stella, her sister was passing as a white woman. The story moves across decades and perspectives to tell the story of the twins who chose different racial identities and their daughters, whose identities were chosen for them.

This ambitious novel delivers even more than I expected from the compelling premise, becoming more interesting with each chapter and new development. Bennett is masterful at handling frequent shifts in time, as she was in THE MOTHERS, and THE VANISHING HALF provides the strong, tense plot that I wished for when reading the earlier novel. That the plot relies on a number of coincidences never bothered me, because I was too caught up in appreciating all the nuances explored in each complicated situation. Bennett excels at portraying the small moments and details that bring characters to life, and she uses this skill to full effect in a story that covers many different ways of passing and taking on new identities.

→ In LITTLE EYES by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, kentuki are the hot new gadget sweeping the globe. Consumers can either buy a cute plush animal containing a camera and some limited movement functionality, or the software that provides control of a single kentuki's camera and wheels. Upon registration, one device owner and one software user are permanently linked, creating an unusual asymmetric relationship between two strangers. Many pairs work out a way to communicate, and some develop close relationships. The novel follows a variety of characters in locations around the world as kentukis shape their lives in ways that are positive, negative, or just plain confusing.

I love novels that present an inventive premise and play out the many ways it could influence individuals and society. Schweblin does a fantastic job of this as she develops the complicated kentuki situations of five main characters and occasionally throws in a one-off chapter showing yet another possibility. She delves into everything that's weird, disturbing, and compelling about the idea of watching a stranger's life, or letting a stranger see in. Very little in this story went in a direction I expected, and I would have happily observed for many more chapters.

FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi opens in the plural voice of ọgbanje spirits who occupy the body of a human child, Ada. The spirits tell the story of Ada's childhood and family in Nigeria and early college days in Virginia, until a traumatic sexual experience brings out a new self in Ada. Ada's multiple inner selves trade off the story, and control of Ada's body, as she learns how to shape her life and identity to her own desires.

While this novel is sometimes difficult to read because of upsetting content, I never had any trouble with Emezi's lyrical, confident sentences. The powerful language and well-differentiated voices propel forward a story that explores trauma, mental health, gender, and religion. FRESHWATER is unlike anything else I've read, and I appreciated Emezi's essay about their experience writing and publishing a book that doesn't fit into any easy categories.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Katherine Willoughby at Book Riot writes about rereading HARRIET THE SPY: "This book was an excellent read right now because we are all Harriet as our world changes and shifts around us. I am a teacher, a real creature of habit. I now long for days in the classroom when I can lead my students through all of our classroom routines and procedures. They help us all feel safe. The coronavirus snatched that all away from us, breaking our routines like someone stealing Harriet's beloved tomato sandwich."

June 30, 2020

Finding a Path

At the end of April, which was both an eternity and a moment ago, I posted about managing to write a little that month. I was going to report that I wrote nothing at all in May, but I've just opened up a document and discovered that in fact I wrote several disjointed and instantly forgettable pages.

June has been somewhat more promising for my fictional endeavors, despite more important things in the world not moving in a promising direction. Early in the month, I started a story from a glimmer of an idea, and I liked the character and premise that began developing. As I kept going, I continued to not hate the thing, a big achievement for me. I've now worked on this story every weekday for the past three weeks, often for only 20 minutes or so, but I've stayed motivated about maintaining my streak.

When I embarked on the story, I had nothing more than the strange little detail I opened with, and most days when I came back to it, I didn't have a plan for where it was going next. I've moved ahead a whim at a time, developing a certain amount of momentum and approximating a short story shape. It's getting to the point where a conclusion should be coming, and I still don't have much idea for a reasonable endpoint.

I caught up on my friend Christopher Gronlund's blog recently and was amused to see his last post was about writing a story without knowing where it was going. He makes a nice comparison to walking in the dark without a flashlight: "In many ways, when your eyes adjust, you can see even more in the dark. Maybe not as clearly, but I always feel more aware of my surroundings without a light source because I'm not looking directly ahead at something unnaturally so bright. Sometimes when I have no idea where to go next in a story, or even what to write at all, I feel like I'm on a night hike: it's awkward at first, but I adjust to the darkness in time and find my way."

I'm hopeful that as I keep inching forward on this story, I'll find a path to a satisfying destination. But even if I don't and the story doesn't turn out to be worth further attention, it's a relief that I've figured out how to get writing again, even in the midst of so much darkness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Joseph Scapellato talks about story shape: "Here is my own understanding of shape: it is a structural container for a narrative. The most important practical quality of a shape—its most useful feature for a writer—is that it suggests 'natural' beginnings, middles, and endings. Any one narrative is going to be made out of many shapes at once, shapes that overlap and intersect and interrupt one another."

June 5, 2020

May Reading Recap

I have not been doing enough on most fronts, other than reading:

FIEBRE TROPICAL by Juliana Delgado Lopera: Fifteen-year-old Francisca has just moved with her family from Bogotá to Miami, and she is not impressed. She's especially uninterested in having anything to do with the evangelical church her mother's life now revolves around, but participation is not optional. Francisca is forced into distributing church flyers with the annoyingly pious Carmen, but the more time the two girls spend together, the more Francisca feels her heart opening to Jesus, or perhaps more accurately to Carmen.

What makes this queer coming-of-age story so great is the narrative voice that thrums with personality and attitude. As Francisca pours out her teenage opinions and emotions, she slips between humor and torment, English and Spanish, but always maintains a vivid rhythm: "Outside, the sky in all its fury released buckets of water that swayed with the palm trees. El cielo gris, oscuro. Talk about goth."

There's not much plot to the novel, but I didn't mind because the voice and characters are so strong. In the middle of her own story, Francisca pauses to expand on the lives of her mother and grandmother by relating their teen exploits in Colombia of the 1970s and 1950s, and those chapters provide a good contrast to the main storyline. I'm so glad I attended an online event that introduced me to Delgado Lopera, and I look forward to more of their work.

GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH by Kelly Robson takes place in a far future, after humanity has been driven underground by climate disaster and then learned to rehabilitate the environment and build cities at the surface again. Minh has spent her career restoring rivers. Her ecological remediation firm once did well at securing contracts and funding, but banks have had little interest in investing since time travel became the hot new technology. When the firm's young admin, Kiki, suggests they bid on a project to travel back to ancient Mesopotamia and study the Tigris and Euphrates, Minh is intrigued. But winning the contract won't be easy, especially since it will involve close collaboration with Kiki, who is unwaveringly eager and just may be as stubborn as Minh.

There is a lot packed into this short book. The world is impressively complex, the characters are nuanced and wonderful, and there are many fun science and project management details to geek over. When I read novellas, I'm often disappointed that they end so quickly, but this story had enough character and plot development to satisfy me, and it reaches a strong conclusion despite not tying up every thread. I recommend this to science fiction readers, and I'll be excited to read more from Robson (including, apparently, an eventual sequel to this book).

ALL SYSTEMS RED by Martha Wells: Murderbot is a Security Unit working for a group of humans performing a planetary survey that's just become dangerous. Because Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, it operates with a lot more freedom and interest in watching TV than other killing machines, but that doesn't make it any less awkward around human clients. After Murderbot saves some lives in the course of just doing its job, it's surprised and initially displeased that this weird group of humans starts treating it like a person. As Murderbot tries to cope with this new dynamic, the survey team discovers the situation on the planet is far more dire than they all thought.

I have been hearing praise for a while about the Murderbot Diaries novella series, and with the first full-length novel just released, it seemed time to finally check it out. I was immediately delighted by Murderbot's narration, and I greatly enjoyed this exciting first installment. The story moves quickly through a brief but satisfying episode that sets Murderbot on the path for future adventures. I'll be happily reading on.

THE PARIS HOURS by Alex George: In 1927 Paris, four characters struggle with secrets and losses as their lives brush up against the city's famous artists. A puppeteer who survived the Armenian genocide can't escape his grief, but he's soothed by the music of Maurice Ravel playing in the apartment downstairs. A painter hopes the patronage of Gertrude Stein will save him from debt-collecting thugs and keep him near the woman he watches. A journalist interviews Americans like Josephine Baker and longs to travel to their country, but a search binds him to Paris. The housekeeper and friend of the late Marcel Proust mourns her employer and the betrayals between them. Over the course of a single day, their four stories and backstories unfold and entwine.

I enjoyed the range of historical events and figures this novel encompasses. George writes strong sentences and descriptions, and the story moves along at a quick pace as it rotates between characters. It's not a light read, however, as the characters are all coping with pain in their pasts and presents. Unfortunately, I often had trouble connecting with their emotional reactions, so I found some of the plot developments melodramatic. Other readers have been more drawn in by the story than I was, so consider this book if you're a fan of historical fiction or curious about the era.

BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE by Anne Lamott: This book about writing is famous for discussing the importance of "shitty first drafts," which must be produced before revising one's way to a better draft. I'd probably read that chapter before, and reading this book all the way through for the first time, I was expecting many more useful instructions. The concept of breaking work into "short assignments" was a good reminder to focus on the next sentence or paragraph or detail rather than the intimidating entire story ahead. And there were a few other insightful ideas and sections.

Overall, though, I didn't get a lot out of this book. A large portion of the advice is geared toward mining experiences from one's own life, and that's not what I'm looking for guidance on. Lamott rambles and tells anecdotes that often rubbed me the wrong way, and her sense of humor didn't click with me at all. I am clearly in the minority, as BIRD BY BIRD is beloved by many writers, so your mileage may vary.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bethany C. Morrow writes at Tor.com about America's differing responses to fictional and real resistance: "It had been nine months since Catching Fire came out, but as the second film in a series, its popularity had persisted, as had its publicity. Surely, that same overflow of support and recognition was going to rise up, I thought. Surely people were going to raise their hands in solidarity, and disallow history to repeat itself. It wasn't going to be mostly Black Americans decrying this most recent slaying by a police officer."

→ NPR's Code Switch interviews Alex S. Vitale, the author of THE END OF POLICING, about how much we need police: "What I'm talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them. And my feeling is that this encompasses actually the vast majority of what police do. We have better alternatives for them. Even if you take something like burglary — a huge amount of burglary activity is driven by drug use. And we need to completely rethink our approach to drugs so that property crime isn't the primary way that people access drugs. We don't have any part of this country that has high-quality medical drug treatment on demand. But we have policing on demand everywhere. And it's not working."

May 28, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2020

This is not going to be the summer anyone planned, but at least there will still be new books. These are the upcoming releases I'm most looking forward to:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (June 2): Bennett's first novel, THE MOTHERS, demonstrated her skill at depicting characters and the way their relationships change over time. This new book promises to draw on those talents again to tell the story of identical twin sisters who grow up to assume different racial identities, a fascinating premise.

THE LIGHTNESS by Emily Temple (June 16): This is a debut from a writer whose work I've read for years on the site Literary Hub. The story involves a teen girl at a strange summer program, and the description intriguingly notes that it "juxtaposes fairy tales with quantum physics, cognitive science with religious fervor, and the passions and obsessions of youth with all of these."

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (June 30): I read Moreno-Garcia's novella PRIME MERIDIAN and have been intending to pick up more of her work, which spans a range of genres. MEXICAN GOTHIC is, naturally, a gothic horror story, and I'm prepared to be creeped out by a spooky mansion and dark family secrets.

THE RELENTLESS MOON by Mary Robinette Kowal (July 14) is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series, in which a climate disaster in the 1950s accelerates the quest to colonize space. I largely enjoyed the first two books, despite some flaws, and I'm looking forward to switching to a different character's point of view for this installment.

BIG FRIENDSHIP: HOW WE KEEP EACH OTHER CLOSE by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman (July 14): Sow and Friedman host the excellent podcast Call Your Girlfriend, covering a variety of topics from a feminist perspective and sharing honest talk about their long-distance friendship and business partnership. I gather the book will be partly a memoir of their friendship and partly a look at friendships in general, and I'm excited to read it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ronnie Scott writes for The Guardian about publishing a book right now: "Like every Australian novelist putting a book out this month, I'm publishing it into a different world than the one I wrote it in. The Adversary is a novel of manners, meaning it's a book where people hang out and socialise and not a lot actually goes on. There are two best friends. They're both gay men. They have to change their friendship. Along the way, they share cigarettes and touch each other's hair. They step over strangers to find the right spot at a shockingly populous pool, where they sweat liberally, sweat stickily and share meaningful bites of their food."

May 6, 2020

April Reading Recap

The three novels I read last month were all different from each other, and pretty different from any other books I've read:

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL by Rahul Kanakia: Nandan's friends are constantly giving him advice about wooing girls, so he's glad to be the voice of authority for a change with his more hapless classmate Dave. After an evening of partying on the Santa Cruz beach and strategizing over girls, Nandan is surprised but drunkenly pleased when he and Dave hook up. Nandan isn't sure how to label his sexuality, because he certainly hasn't stopped thinking about getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, but at least he's having fun figuring it out, except when he really isn't.

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL deals with the anguish of teenage uncertainty about attraction, friendship, and how to fit into the world. While the story is structurally simple, with nothing in the way of subplots, the thoughts Nandan is grappling with are complex and nuanced. His narrative voice reads as realistically adolescent to me, without feeling as emotionally overblown as YA sometimes is to my jaded adult self. Kanakia is a strong and careful writer, and I look forward to more of her work, particularly the adult novel she's revising now.

NEW WAVES by Kevin Nguyen: Margo and Lucas become good friends at a New York City tech company, where they both deal with the grind of daily racism. She's a rare black woman engineer, either ignored and told to assert herself, or warned to be less aggressive. He's Asian and always assumed to be an engineer, then looked down on for actually working in customer service. The two of them commiserate in bars after work, share conversations that are alternately deep and ridiculous, and drunkenly steal proprietary data one night after Margo is fired. And then Margo dies in an accident, and Lucas is left with the password to her laptop and the growing recognition that he didn't know his best friend very well at all.

This is an emotionally engaging novel about grief in the digital age and the difficulties of human connection. It's not, as the jacket copy suggests, a heist or a mystery, beyond the mystery of people trying to understand one another. The early part of the book led me to expect a more strongly plotted story, so I was disappointed that certain threads didn't wind up somewhere more significant, but I appreciated the cerebral and somewhat messy novel this turned out to be. Nguyen is very perceptive about how both people and technology work, and this story contains great depictions of tech culture, office life, and complicated friendship.

THE NIX by Nathan Hill: Samuel is a disillusioned English professor, a failed novelist, and a secret videogamer. His mother ran off when he was young, and her whereabouts have remained unknown, so he's stunned when Faye shows up in the news after attacking a conservative governor. Even stranger are the reports of her history as a political protestor, a part of her life Samuel knows nothing about. The story unfolds in multiple timelines to reveal the past events that brought Samuel and Faye to this point, and a variety of side characters also get their turns in the spotlight.

This novel was a lot of fun to read, with amusing lines, absurd incidents, and a fairly light tone despite upsetting material that includes compulsive behavior, betrayal, and police brutality. Samuel and Faye are sympathetically flawed, complex characters, and the people around them are an interesting mix of realistic, cartoonish, or both. Hill does a great job weaving together the collection of unusual plots so that the insights combine in a satisfying way. The story covers many fascinating topics and settings: the protest movements of several eras, massively multiplayer online games, Norwegian folk tales, and much more. The book is long and could have been shortened throughout with less description, but it rarely drags. Recommended if you want to spend some time in an intricate, odd, and often funny story world.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laurie Penny at Wired breaks down why This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For: "I was expecting Half-Life. I was expecting World War Z. I've been dressing like I'm in The Matrix since 2003. I was not expecting to be facing this sort of thing in snuggly socks and a dressing gown, thousands of miles from home, trying not to panic and craving a proper cup of tea. This apocalypse is less Danny Boyle and more Douglas Adams."

April 30, 2020

Sheltering in This Place

In the middle of April, I turned 45, which was of course one of the least noteworthy aspects of the month. My birthday celebrations were not so different from usual: I did some baking, I enjoyed delicious food and drink with the loved ones I live with, and I connected by videocall and phone with far-away family. In a non-pandemic version of my birthday, we might have driven to Santa Cruz to watch the ocean while eating ice cream, then had dinner at a favorite restaurant. But sitting on our own patio and drinking margaritas from our own blender was also a thoroughly delightful way to celebrate.

I live in Santa Clara County in California, where some of the earliest US coronavirus cases were detected, and where public health officials were quickest to act. My household has been incredibly fortunate, remaining healthy and financially secure. We have a comfortable house in a suburban neighborhood that provides plenty of space for safe outdoor exercise. Everyone else has tech jobs easily done at home, and I've always done my writing at home.

I haven't been writing much. I appreciate and agree with all the thoughtful stuff I've read about how this is not the time to expect creativity from ourselves, when our brains are mainly focused on fear and survival. Still, I'm lucky to be in a good place from a practical and usually psychological perspective. My mind is enjoying the distraction of books, and the podcasts I listen to while exercising and doing chores. I would love to be in the midst of a writing project that I could get further absorbed in.

If I had already been mid-project, I think I'd be working on it, not as well or as often as in the non-pandemic version of life, but I'd be getting somewhere. In this reality, though, not only are we living through a pandemic, but it struck right while I was trying to figure out what to write next. I can't say how my figuring out might have gone in the other timeline, but in this one, I'm still without a clear idea that I can sit down and add words to on a regular basis.

I did have about three days where I thought I had something semi-promising that might eventually turn into a novel. But writing out the few scenes in my head didn't create sufficient spark to give me any more to write beyond that. I may eventually work out how to continue this idea further, but at the moment, it feels like a dud.

However, I suppose what I should really say is that I wrote a little this month. It's not quite what I was hoping for, but nothing is right now, and any step in the right direction is worth celebrating. I'll probably write some next month, too, and that will be cool.

So that's where I'm at. I hope this finds you in a place of health, safety, and at least occasional delights.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emily Temple shares some early thoughts on the impact of the pandemic on future novels: "And just like 9/11 reverberated throughout American culture, changing the tenor even of media that did not directly address it, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to infect even those novels that skirt it with a mood—'post-pandemic fiction,' characterized by a distrust of capitalism and authority, and an acceptance of corruption, instability, and danger as a shimmering, distorted baseline."

→ Meanwhile, at The Millions, Edan Lepucki peers into the future and returns with summaries and covers of the bestselling coronavirus novels: "This is a sweeping and searing tapestry of a portrait of an infinity pool of a novel about humanity's vulnerability, penned by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers, where even the virus's spiky genome is given its own consciousness and rendered in luminous yet mischievous prose."

April 3, 2020

March Reading Recap

Since the month of March was several years long, and reading was about all I could focus on, I have a lot of books to recommend this time:

88 NAMES by Matt Ruff: John Chu works as an online sherpa, guiding gaming newbies through virtual reality adventure games. After a series of jobs gone wrong that might be the fault of a disgruntled ex-employee/girlfriend, John is approached by an anonymous wealthy client offering an outrageous sum, and making a set of outrageous demands. This is immediately followed by an even larger offer from another mysterious figure who wants John to take the first job but report everything that happens. When it starts to look like the first client might be someone high up in the North Korean government, things get even weirder.

Ruff has long been one of my favorite authors for the originality of his stories, the amount of thought he clearly puts into his worlds, and the moments of humor threaded through everything he writes. All these traits are visible in this novel, which dissects topics like racist RPG tropes and online gender dynamics while sending the characters on a fun and often funny adventure with unexpected twists. I enjoyed all the ideas the story explores, and the fast-paced plot kept me engrossed during a very distracting time.

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel opens with Vincent falling from a ship into the ocean and having a vision of her half-brother Paul, who she hasn't seen in a decade. The story then goes back even farther to the time when a younger Paul, fresh out of rehab, tries and fails to get his life back together. After his actions lead to the death of a man he barely knows, Paul flees Toronto to track down Vincent in Vancouver, accompanied by a ghost of the dead man. Later both siblings find work at the remote, luxurious Hotel Caiette, where their lives intersect with other characters and veer wildly apart.

This novel jumps around between time periods and vaguely connected characters in a similar way to Mandel's previous book, the post-pandemic STATION ELEVEN (and the two share a couple surprising points of connection). It's much harder to summarize this story, which has Vincent and Paul and the hotel at the core but spends long stretches away from these and eventually involves the 2008 financial crisis, shady investment funds, the shipping industry, and more ghosts lurking around. If there's a unifying theme, it's probably the way chance and coincidence bring people together and shape lives. I was drawn into the story immediately and remained hooked as it went off in different directions and introduced more excellent characters. This is a strange but strangely compelling novel that taught me some things about the subjects it contains and some things about writing.

SABRINA & CORINA by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: The short stories in this collection are all connected by the setting of Denver, Colorado, and characters who share a Latino and Indigenous heritage, and in some cases come from the same large family. There are other recurring elements: pairs of characters who end up on different life paths, pairs who form new bonds, and many sad outcomes. The writing is strong, and Fajardo-Anstine is great at depicting small but important character moments. All writers have repeated moves that become evident when stories are collected, and while I wasn't a fan of some here (too many dreams for my taste), I liked the common structure of a background thread that affects and comments on the main plot.

The first story, "Sugar Babies", blends several threads to good effect. As an archaeological dig takes place at the edge of her town, a thirteen-year-old is assigned the school project of caring for a sack of sugar like an infant at the same time her mother comes back into her life. "Galapago" follows an elderly woman dealing with life changes and has a hell of an opening sentence: "The day before Pearla Ortiz killed a man, she had lunch at home with her granddaughter Alana." In "All Her Names", while the main character wrestles with complicated emotions surrounding her husband and an old love, an episode involving graffiti art sends the story in an unusual direction. Fajardo-Anstine has indicated that she's working on a novel, and I look forward to reading it.

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple: After her mother vanishes two days before Christmas, eighth-grader Bee sets out to piece together email messages, private school memos, and other documents to understand what led up to Bernadette's disappearance. Bee has a wonderful relationship with her mother, who everyone else in their suburban Seattle (which is to say, Microsoft) community views as eccentric, aloof, or downright mean. Bernadette is all these things at times, especially when confronted by the other parents from Bee's school. She's also deeply fearful of the world, outsourcing all possible tasks to a virtual assistant in India and worrying about the overwhelming challenge of the family's upcoming Antarctica cruise. Most of all, Bernadette is unable to move beyond the failures in her past that caused her to flee to Seattle, a city she's come to loathe.

I enjoyed this unusual story about an unusual family. The writing is funny at times, in a savage way, but more often the tone swings from disturbing to absurd. While the level of detail in the emails, letters, and so on requires a suspension of disbelief, the epistolary format works well to present how a variety of characters view Bernadette in very different ways. She's not an easy person for anyone, but she also hasn't had an easy life, and I was fascinated by the story's reveals. I'm glad I finally got around to reading this.

→ In MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE: DESIGN AND PATTERN IN NARRATIVE, Jane Alison considers the ways stories can be shaped. While fiction is commonly mapped onto an arc, Alison describes other possibilities, such as oscillating wavelets, inward or outward spirals, and segmented cells. To demonstrate each pattern, she presents short excerpts from a few novels or short stories along with a careful analysis of how the shape plays out through the work.

I really like the concept of this book, and it's well executed, with clear explanations and illuminating examples. Still, I wished for more: more analysis of each shape, more examples, and especially more concrete ideas about how to bring these patterns into one's own writing. But this last wish is not necessarily Alison's goal or responsibility, and I did get certain sparks of inspiration from reading, even though the book wasn't all I hoped.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Adam O'Fallon Price teases apart the happiness inherent in writing, or having written: "Professor Kahneman, I think, would agree that for a person who does not really enjoy the act of writing—like my old workshop friend—the pleasure of having written a thing could never, for him, outweigh the pain of the writing itself. Novel writing presents a radical example of trading experiential happiness for anticipated reflective happiness, surely one of the most extreme examples of this kind of activity that humans regularly engage in."

March 12, 2020

FOGcon 2020 Report

FOGcon 10 was last weekend, and it already seems like months ago in another era. During those last days before it became fully clear that large gatherings should be avoided, around 150 speculative literature fans came together to geek about books, other media, and the connections between imaginative stories and the real world.

There was much talk of COVID-19. (I sang "Come On Eileen" at karaoke in tribute.) We elbow-bumped and flashed the Vulcan salute instead of hugging hello. We washed our hands a lot. (The hotel staff reported they'd never had to replenish the soap and paper towels so frequently.) Despite the undercurrent of uncertainty, we had a great con.

A number of people had to make the decision not to attend due to health or travel situations, and that included one of our Honored Guests, Nisi Shawl. Happily, we were able to arrange some teleconferencing at short notice so Nisi could participate in their programming remotely. It was delightful to have them onscreen sharing their thoughts about writing and inspiration during an excellent roundtable with authors from the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop of Oakland.

Our other Honored Guest, Mary Anne Mohanraj, was present to participate in a number of panels, including one I moderated. I was very pleased by our lively discussion of societal defaults, cultural assumptions, and how genre fiction can challenge these. Mary Anne was also part of a fun panel about Food in Genre Fiction, and the topic of food made its way onto other panels, because food is great (and also Mary Anne has a new cookbook out). During her presentation on running genre nonprofits, I took copious notes on ideas that might help FOGcon grow into the future.

I attended a couple of standout panels about horror, a genre that tends to get less attention at the con than science fiction and fantasy, and one I'm gradually consuming more often. At the first of these panels, I enjoyed seeing film stills that illustrate the ways color is used in horror movies. At the other, I loved hearing the panelists analyze how horror books and films have commented on class.

As the real world takes on the qualities of various speculative genres and we hunker down at home, I'm glad I have another year of FOGcon memories to look back on and the usual long list of story recommendations to keep me distracted. I hope you all stay safe and well entertained!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Electric Lit offers a list of books about pandemics "for people who find it oddly soothing to read about plagues." I'm in that camp, and I can heartily recommend about half these books.

March 4, 2020

February Reading Recap

With FOGcon nearly here, it's appropriate that the novels I'm recommending all take different approaches to speculative fiction:

EVERFAIR by Nisi Shawl: At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of black American Christian missionaries and white British Fabian socialists get together to purchase part of the Congo from the cruel King Leopold II of Belgium. The settlers name their new nation Everfair and attempt to provide a safe haven where the local population can escape Leopold's atrocities. As Everfair grows, the many differing goals of its founders come into conflict. The hereditary king of the territory once claimed by Belgium and now by Everfair also has plans and opinions about the new colonizers.

EVERFAIR is an impressive novel that covers thirty eventful years of alternate history, told through the well-differentiated perspectives of a dozen characters, in less than 400 pages. My summary didn't even mention the story's steampunk technology, including the fleet of aircanoes (similar to blimps) the characters use to wage war and travel in peacetime. A lot happens in this story, and it happens fast. Within the space constraints, Shawl draws the characters and their motivations very well, but I wished for more time to get to know them all. Despite that, I found much to admire and think about in this smart, exciting take on colonialism and utopianism.

MAZES OF POWER by Juliette Wade: In the underground cities of Varin, life operates according to a strict caste system and rigid cultural norms. Tagaret is from a powerful family in the noble class, and his cruel father would like to see him in line for the Eminence's throne. But Tagaret has no interest in politics, unlike his younger brother, who schemes constantly and imagines threats everywhere. When their city is thrown into turmoil by disease and a battle over succession, both brothers end up with crucial roles to play. So does their mother's new servant, who wants nothing more than to serve his lady faithfully, even when he discovers this entails more secrecy and danger than anticipated.

The world of this story is intricately, impressively developed. Wade does a good job conveying information within scenes, but there's a lot to absorb at the beginning, and it took me a little while to become fully invested in the world and characters. After a couple of chapters with each of the viewpoints, the story and its many conflicts pulled me in, and I developed a fondness for the three young men at the center, even the one who's a pretty horrible person. I did find it hard at times to understand characters' strong emotional reactions, and I wished for more to be revealed about the underground setting and its technology. But this is a promising first book in a series, and I look forward to more.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata: In 1916, Adana Moreau escapes the Dominican Republic during the American occupation and guerrilla insurgency. She makes her way to New Orleans with the help of a kind pirate who becomes her husband. When their curious son Maxwell learns to read, so does Adana, and she develops a great love for books, especially science fiction and horror. She writes a novel of her own, a post-apocalyptic adventure story with parallel universes. It's published to some success, but while Adana is writing the sequel, she grows fatally ill and burns the manuscript she won't live to finish. In 2004, Saul Drower's grandfather dies, leaving behind his science fiction collection, cassette tapes of oral history interviews, and a mysterious package addressed to a Maxwell Moreau.

This wonderful novel is full of book love. While it's not a work of science fiction, its characters view the world with sci-fi sensibilities: "The sea was deep blue and alien and as vast as the sky. She imagined that in the distant future the end of the world would have its origins there and for some unknown reason this put her at ease." "His grief was already traveling backward in time from Chicago to Tel Aviv. He was already meeting himself coming the other way, like a shitty space-time opera..."

The book revolves around the literary mystery that connects the two sets of characters, all of whom I felt such tenderness for. Even more that that, it revolves around stories and journeys and the rambling path both often take. Tangents and recollections break into the narrative frequently, and I found these digressions all just as gripping as the plot I was eagerly following. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, unusual tale, and I hope more people will find their way to it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Rachel Vorona Cote writes about Ramona Quimby and other beloved characters from my childhood: "In 1955, Ramona Quimby, a near American cousin of Pippi Longstocking, tumbled into the picture, all scraped knees and exuberant doodles. She and her creator, author Beverly Cleary, united with Pippi and Lindgren in literary confederation, bright beacons for little girls who have been variously told they are too much: too loud or pesky or hyperactive."

February 27, 2020

Ready for FOGcon and Beyond

It's one week until FOGcon, and I've been busy preparing for the tenth year of this awesome speculative fiction convention. This year, for the first time, I took on responsibility for the program book that contains information about the honored guests, the programming schedule, and so on. The book is professionally printed, with gorgeous cover art, so it serves as a nice souvenir of the con as well as being useful.

As program book coordinator, I collected all the different pieces that go into the book, edited everything, and did the layout. I had very little knowledge of layout or design going into this, so that part was a challenging but fun learning experience. I think it all turned out pretty well. You can see the PDF version on the FOGcon site.

Creating the program book was a big job for a couple of weeks, and the timing was good for me to handle it because I'm between things. Behind me is the completed novel revision, and I'm currently at a waiting stage with that manuscript. So now that I've taken time to recharge, caught up on other stuff, and finished this volunteer project, I'm ready to move ahead to... something.

If I'm honest, the program book timing also worked out well in that it provided a virtuous excuse to put off figuring out what comes next. I wish I had a solid novel idea that I could get started on drafting or outlining, but everything swirling around in my head is half-formed. I hope that if I settle my mind down to focusing on the possibilities, things will gel. But that requires convincing myself to get started, and I keep finding more reasons to delay. It's time to get back to writing. Definitely after FOGcon, anyway.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund considers inspiration: "There's a fine line between seeking out inspiration and working. When it's time to put in the effort, do the work -- don't look for inspiration because you'll likely find what little time you may have taken up by the literary equivalent of hollow calories."

February 5, 2020

January Reading Recap

I started off the year as I mean to go on -- with a lot of reading!

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid: Emira is out on a Saturday night when the family she babysits for calls and begs her to take their toddler away from the house while they deal with an emergency. As Emira skillfully entertains Briar in a fancy grocery store, another customer grows suspicious about the black woman with the little white girl. There's an incident with a security guard that Emira just wants to forget, but Briar's mother, Alix, considers it a sign that she needs to start taking a more active interest in her babysitter. While Alix enacts an agenda to improve Emira's life, Emira's actual life proceeds in directions that would surprise her. One development in particular threatens to make all the characters examine their own motives and assumptions -- or not, as the case may be.

This novel is a delight in so many ways. The dialogue is some of the best I've ever read, with each character speaking in exactly the way that sounds natural and alive for them, even the toddler. The well-crafted plot is tight and tense, with great use of dramatic irony to set up a situation that the reader, but none of the characters, knows is poised to explode. Through alternating points of view that are compassionate to both characters, Reid shows how Emira and Alix's experiences and priorities differ. SUCH A FUN AGE offers a nuanced commentary on class, race, and privilege, an insightful look at caregiving, and a page-turner of a story.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu: Willis Wu is Generic Asian Man, or sometimes Delivery Guy or Dead Asian Guy. His lifelong dream has been to attain the role of Kung Fu Guy, the highest rank available to an Asian actor. Willis, his aging parents, and all their Chinatown neighbors work at the Golden Palace restaurant, which serves as an interior on the cop show Black and White. In the world of this story, there is no reality beyond the show, or at least Willis can't conceive of any bigger dream than playing a stereotyped other in the dichotomy of Black and White.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN (or, INTERIOR: CHINATOWN) is another great, weird work of metaphorical metafiction from Yu. Since Willis exists inside a TV world, the novel is laid out in the font and format of a screenplay, with longer prose sections mixed in among the centered dialogue. Rather than becoming a tedious gimmick, the format grows even more clever as the story proceeds and Willis strains against the limitations of his life. This novel is funny and heart-wrenching by turns, and it's packed with sharp observations on race in America. I recommend it, and I guarantee you've never read anything quite like it.

HERE AND NOW AND THEN by Mike Chen: Eighteen years ago, Kin was on a Temporal Corruption Bureau mission when he became stranded in 1996. Unable to return to 2142 or even hold on to the memories of his life there, Kin built a new life. It's been a happy one, with a wife and now teenage daughter who know nothing about his past in the future. Then another TCB agent finally appears to whisk Kin back to 2142, just weeks after his departure. He's supposed to slide seamlessly into the life he can't quite remember, but he isn't about to forget the family he left behind.

It's a cool premise, and the plot is clever and fast-paced. At points, I did wonder, "Since they have time travel, couldn't they just...?", but I was willing to overlook those holes to enjoy the inventive story. Other flaws bothered me more, such as a flatness to the characters that meant the novel didn't deliver as much emotional impact as it was going for. In general, I wished for a richer, more nuanced version of this story, but this was a fun read with some touching moments. Chen just released a second novel, A BEGINNING AT THE END, and since it's set in a post-pandemic San Francisco, I may be picking it up.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt opens with our narrator, Richard, and his friends murdering one of their college classmates. Richard then goes back to the beginning to explain what took him from an unhappy upbringing in California to a small college in Vermont, where he enrolls in an immersive study of Greek and other classical topics. His classmates in this insulated course of study, the eventual murder co-conspirators and victim, are a tight group of friends who are reluctant to welcome an outsider. But as the months go on, Richard gains acceptance and finds happiness with his new friends, until he discovers the conflicts and secrets splintering the group.

I read THE SECRET HISTORY because for years I've encountered people talking about their love for this novel in ways and contexts that suggested I would also enjoy it. Sorry, friends, but not only did I not enjoy it, I'm baffled as to why this lengthy book is so popular. Sure, the writing is strong enough at the sentence and paragraph level, and the characters are entertaining, but it takes such a long time for anything to happen, and then most of it doesn't amount to anything.

The story slows down right after the intriguing prologue that establishes the murder, but eventually conflict starts to brew again, though unfortunately Richard learns about the most exciting events secondhand. For a while, I kept believing there was a solid plot at the core, despite the filler that constantly works against it. An example of this dilution is that Richard speaks of how he and the other students admire their charismatic professor, but the teacher is absent for such long stretches of the text that it's hard to accept his impact on most of what occurs. At the halfway point, the story arrives back at the murder, and I looked forward to exploring the uncharted territory ahead. Alas, the various tantalizing plot possibilities went nowhere. After another fairly pointless section, the final set of conflicts and turns lead to an underwhelming conclusion, and Richard's story fizzles out in an unsatisfying epilogue. For another perspective on how the novel unfolds, consult almost anyone else who's read it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Electric Lit, Michael Zapata recounts the stories of books that were almost lost to history: "At some point, while both finishing the resulting novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and searching for my great-grandfather's poems, which my grandfather incredibly discovered on his 100th birthday, I began to wonder about the innumerable books condemned to the abyss by personal and historical ruptures of space and time, and all those books nearly lost to history which, through impossible odds, still reach us like shadows from other worlds."

January 22, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2020

Whatever else happens in 2020, it's set to be another great year for books. These are the novels I've been most anticipating reading over the next few months:

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu (January 28): Yu's previous novel was HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, a moving family story that takes a metaphorical, meta-fictional approach to time travel. His new novel, described as "a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes," sounds just as unusual, clever, and thoughtful.

MAZES OF POWER by Juliette Wade (February 4): I know Juliette from FOGcon and have been following her writing journey for years, so I'm thrilled that she's publishing her first novel. The book, which begins a series, is set in a richly constructed world with a strict caste system. The story involves a political struggle and maybe an epidemic, and it's been getting rave advance reviews.

88 NAMES by Matt Ruff (March 17): I'm a longtime fan of everything Ruff has written. His most recent book was LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, a story of supernatural and racist horrors that's currently being adapted for TV. 88 NAMES features a virtual reality game world and a mysterious figure who might be Kim Jong-un, so it's sure to be wild.

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel (March 24): Mandel's last novel, STATION ELEVEN, remains one of my favorite apocalypse stories (and is also getting a TV adaptation). The new book has a complicated jacket description that Mandel sums up as "a ghost story that's also about white collar crime and container shipping." I'm certainly intrigued.

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL by Rahul Kanakia (March 31): I loved Kanakia's smart first novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, which follows an ambitious high school senior on a shameless quest to manipulate her way into Stanford. Her new book also stars a high school student with a plan -- one that's thrown off track when he hooks up with his guy friend and has to reconsider his sexuality and identity.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Eater, Jaya Saxena interviews Jasmine Guillory about celebrating food in her romance novels: "In my books, I really wanted to have people eating meals together and not feeling like there was something wrong with them. To a certain extent, that is a little bit of a fantasy. But I do know plenty of women who love to eat and don't have a source of anxiety with food. I want food to be joyful and fun no matter what it is." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 13, 2020

2019 By The Books

Since it's January, I can now safely reflect on my favorite books of last year without the risk of omitting something wonderful I read right at the end. My practice of waiting for the new year was even justified this time around, since one of my picks captivated me during the final week of 2019.

Last year I established that my reading patterns have become fairly consistent, and that remains the case, though my count of 39 books is an uptick from previous years. Two-thirds of those were 2019 releases, many that I was eagerly awaiting. I only read two books published before 2000, both toward the end of the year. I may continue the trend of mixing in older books with the recent stuff, but I'm also excited about a long list of books coming out in 2020, so I don't expect a major shift.

As tends to be the case, about a third of what I read stands out as exceptional. Rather than trying to narrow the list, I'm going to include them all, each with a pointer to the monthly recap that contains my original, fuller recommendation.

If asked to name a single favorite book of 2019, I'd go with THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell (July/August) for containing so much of all the things I love to read about. This epic tale of families tied together across generations details the history of Zambia, speculates on the technology of the future, takes mysterious and fantastical turns, plays with language, and throws wonderful characters into love and conflict. While THE OLD DRIFT does it all, these sorts of elements also recur in my other top books of the year.

Families entwined by past events are central to YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha (December). In present-day Los Angeles, a Korean-American family and a black family are shaped as well as linked by the racial tensions and unrest of the early 1990s.

Race relations are given careful consideration throughout GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March). In collages of drawn characters, photographs, and speech bubbles, the author attempts to answer her biracial son's questions while reflecting on her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents.

Trying to make sense of family is a big concern for the narrator of THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett (December). The story charts the bond between a brother and sister for decades as the rest of the family and relationships in their lives come and go.

January 7, 2020

December Reading Recap

I closed out 2019 with a great reading month. In my next post, I'll look back at my whole reading year.

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha follows a Korean-American family and a black family in present-day Los Angeles, uncovering their connections to the city's unrest in the early 1990s. Grace works at the pharmacy owned by her immigrant parents and wishes her older sister would reconcile with their mother, or at least explain why she stopped talking to her. Shawn has been putting his life back together ever since the violent death of his older sister and hopes that his cousin's release from prison won't bring further turmoil to the family. Grace and Shawn are just trying to get along in their very different lives until a shocking crime impacts them both and raises questions about the past.

This is a masterfully crafted novel at every level. The characters, situations, and difficult topics are all presented with realistic nuance. The plot is a tense page-turner, and Cha draws on her experience writing detective novels to set up a compelling mystery. She also draws from history, basing the story's catalyst on a real event that happened around the time of the Rodney King beating, and I was fascinated to learn about it. I highly recommend this novel to all readers.

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett: Danny is eight and Maeve is fifteen when their father first brings Andrea to the Dutch House for a tour. The house, Dutch because of its original owners, is a grand home outside Philadelphia that Danny and Maeve's father purchased in 1946 for their mother, who left when Danny was too small to remember. By the time Danny is fifteen, he and his sister no longer live at the Dutch House, but Andrea does. The siblings begin a habit of parking on the street outside the house to observe and discuss, a tradition they continue for decades. As Danny grows up and makes a family of his own, his bond with Maeve remains central to his life, and for good or bad, so does their past in the house.

I loved this book and the brother-sister relationship at its core. Patchett is a master at crafting distinctive, fully realized characters, and I now feel like I've known Danny and Maeve personally all these years. The portrayal of a long span of time with the aid of quick jumps forward and back is similar to Patchett's equally excellent COMMONWEALTH, though this novel's approach is more methodical. The confidently rendered characters and structure, the engrossing story, and the subtle humor place THE DUTCH HOUSE among my favorite books of the year and confirm Patchett as one of my favorite authors.

GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin opens with the narrator alone in a house in France. David's girlfriend is on a ship back to America (it's the 1950s) after understanding that he never really loved her. Giovanni, who he may have truly loved, is sentenced to die at the guillotine in the morning. From this shocking start, the novel goes back to tell of David's first sexual encounter with a boy in Brooklyn, his move to Paris to find or escape himself, and all that occurred between meeting Giovanni and Giovanni committing his crime.

This is an emotionally intense story, beautifully written but difficult to read. The setup imbues every event with foreboding, and David's conflicted feelings about his sexuality prevent him from finding happiness in his love for Giovanni. As a result, this isn't quite the celebration of gay love that I anticipated, but it's a nuanced, compassionate portrayal of several midcentury gay experiences. I hadn't read Baldwin before, and I'm glad I finally spent some time with his exemplary prose.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper narrating this novel is hired to look after a retired math professor, who lives an isolated existence with only his beloved numbers for company. While math may have always been an overwhelming focus of his life, it's now one of the sole subjects accessible to him, because he suffers from anterograde amnesia and can't form any new memories. Every morning when the housekeeper arrives, she's a stranger to him again, a situation she handles with far more kindness than his previous housekeepers. When the professor displays his love of children, she starts bringing her son along, and the two of them become eager students of the professor's number theory lessons. Despite the limits of his memory, the three create a sort of family until the outside world intrudes.

This is an interesting but frustrating story. The characters are all charming, and when things took a bad turn, I was definitely concerned and invested in everyone's fate. The math is explained well, and there's personality in how both the professor and the housekeeper think about numbers. However, for much of the book, I felt the amnesia barely impacted the plot, and a similar story might have been told if the professor's eccentricities lacked this contrivance. There were also a few places when secrets were uncovered but raised more questions than they answered. These issues made me wish for a somewhat different story, but the reading experience was mostly enjoyable.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lincoln Michel describes the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story: "I'm interested in what devices--engines let's call them, since surely the author is always the driver (even when they're crashing their story into a ditch)--can supply power to the rest of story.... In my own writing, I typically find that plot and character are not enough and that my stories are inert until I find a different kind of engine--a thematic engine perhaps or a structure engine or a linguistic engine--that makes the thing get up and running."